Decimated mangroves at Aqua by the Bay.
Photo credit: Suncoast Waterkeeper
Relentless development has long plagued Southwest Florida, resulting in the destruction of ecosystems and degradation of communities. Manatee and Sarasota Counties have been particularly hard-hit, having lost much of our wildlands already. One of the most heavily impacted ecosystems has been mangrove swamps. This is a major concern because mangroves not only sequester more carbon than tropical rainforests, but they house many of Florida's economically and recreationally important fish species and stabilize the coastline, protecting us from hurricanes and other extreme weather events. As such, mangroves are now protected under the 1996 Mangrove Trimming and Preservation Act.
Despite this, Manatee and Sarasota have lost most of their mangroves to coastal development and politically connected developers such as Carlos Beruff and Pat Neal are still given permits to alter and destroy mangroves. Just as problematic, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection has been very lax on penalizing unpermitted mangrove destruction and there is little transparency in the legal process. One widely publicized example of this occurred this spring when Carlos Beruff's company, Medallion Home, was accused of illegally decimating a mangrove forest at the controversial Aqua by the Bay development. This resulted in an inspection by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection which found no issues, contrary to the destruction pictured in public photographs by the environmental not-for-profit, Suncoast Waterkeeper. After coming under fire for the absurd declaration, FDEP reinspected, reversed course, and proclaimed that the cutting was illegal after all. However, no update has been given on any on-going proceedings since October, adding to the several mangrove trimming investigations which remain open in Manatee County alone.
A recent letter to FDEP by Suncoast Waterkeeper sums up the situation and Manatee County citizens' frustration:
Dec. 22, 2022
Florida Department of Environmental Protection
Compliance Assurance Program, S.W. District
RE: Professional Mangrove Trimmer Accountability for Multiple Mangrove Trimming Violations in Manatee County
Dear FDEP District Staff,
Recently, there has been a ramping up of citizens’ complaints relating to mangrove trimming permit violations in Manatee County. In addition to the outstanding complaints at Long Bar Pointe, 223 41st Street N.E., and 10218 46th Ave. W. in Bradenton, there have been new complaints filed at 521 Broadway St. in Longboat Key and Mount Vernon Condominiums on Cortez Road at 27°27’11.0″N 82°39’22.0″W. Suncoast Waterkeeper has a substantial interest in mangrove regulation and enforcement in Sarasota Bay and beyond. Mangroves in Manatee County particularly concern Suncoast Waterkeeper, our members and the communities that rely on these precious coastal resources. Unlike neighboring Sarasota County, where approximately 80% of the natural shoreline and mangrove coverage has been hardened and removed, Manatee still retains significant and ecologically important mangrove coverage. We believe that the 1996 Mangrove Trimming and Preservation Act violations are commonplace.
In an effort to curb violations, Suncoast Waterkeeper investigated whether the mangrove trimmer at Aqua was licensed under state law to perform the work conducted in February 2022. Unfortunately, the search did not yield the desired results because the department does not keep a database of all licensed mangrove trimmers. While in most professions, if a licensed professional breaks the law performing their job, their license is questioned, scrutinized and there is a formal process to hold the individual accountable for their poor job performance. Unfortunately, this is not the case in Florida, and we believe that a lack of accountability for the licensed professional will lead to more mangrove loss. Moreover, undertaking regulated actions without an appropriate license should, like other regulated occupations, have consequences for the individual trimming or removing mangroves in violation of the Mangrove Trimming and Preservation Act.
We fear that the lack of penalties for these numerous illegal actions will send a message to licensed professionals and their clients that mangroves can be illegally altered and removed without consequences. There are no better examples of this than FDEP’s recent findings from its inspection at 10218 46th Ave. W. in Bradenton and Long Bar Pointe. Both properties have had previous enforcement cases. The property at 10218 46th Ave. W. had an enforcement case in 2013 for the same violation. In 2013, no penalties were enacted and the case was closed nearly two years later when a follow-up inspection concluded that the mangroves had recovered on their own. Without consequences, the homeowner once again hired a tree trimming service to alter the mangroves on her property illegally. This aggressive trimming is known to harm these protected tree species and was the impetus for the Mangrove Trimming and Preservation Act.
Long Bar Pointe also had an enforcement case in 2021 and closed without penalties in April of this year. Unfortunately, the second aggressive trimming event reported in January 2022 has led to a significant amount of tree debris in the estuary contributing to a localized harmful algal bloom in the spring. According to Sarasota Bay Estuary Program Director Dr. Dave Tomasko, “That portion of the bay has much more macroalgae than most of the rest of our bay, and a preliminary nitrogen loading estimate suggests that a localized nitrogen load [coming from the mangrove trimming debris] is likely playing a role in the problems we see in that part of the bay.” The summary letter issued to the FDEP by Long Bar Pointe on Oct. 7, 2022 noted that the mangrove trimmers did not know they were supposed to remove the debris from the water. According to that same letter, penalties are forthcoming. However, there have been no updates on Oculus since Oct. 7. Meanwhile, Sarasota Bay continues to be negatively impacted by decomposing mangrove material, and communities scarred by illegal trimming and removal are increasingly vulnerable to hurricanes and suffer a reduction in overall resilience.
Finally, the complaint filed on Oct. 14, 2022 for the property at 223 41st St. N.E. in Bradenton has no complaint or inspection report logged. Can you please provide us with a file or link to a complete set of documents in DEP’s possession related to 2022 trimming at Long Bar/Aqua, 223 41st St. N.E., and 10218 46th Ave. W.? We are not sure if there are other documents related to the trimming, investigating and penalties of these filed complaints.
We want to see the regulatory framework accomplish environmental protection in Manatee County and elsewhere. We hope that enforcement actions and penalties will be strong enough to incentivize future compliance with Florida law. We also want to see licensed and unlicensed trimmers who break the law held accountable for their actions.
We encourage DEP to consider this and all other pertinent information. We recommend that you follow through on appropriate actions to protect our local waterways and the integrity of our environmental laws and regulations.
Abbey Tyrna, Executive Director & Waterkeeper
Rusty Chinnis, Board Chair
Justin Bloom, Founder & Board Vice-Chair
A dead mangrove, killed by illegal mangrove clearing at 521 Broadway Street, Longboat Key.
An ancient mangrove, terribly damaged at Aqua.
Rusty Chinnis, pers. comm.